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Diogenes, put down your lamp

February 27, 2013 

So you’ve been cut off in traffic lately. Or, a friend sold you a car said to be like new which left you stranded on I-40 at rush hour and proved to be decidedly imperfect after all. Perhaps a co-worker in pursuit of a promotion got a phone shot of you resting your eyes at your desk.

You nodded in agreement when a friend sent you an old cartoon of a big, sad dog sitting by himself with the caption, “People are no ---- good.” Yes, indeed, absolutely right, you said to yourself, before seeing if the classifieds carried any listings for rental caves far from this sorry excuse for civilization.

T’was said the cynical Greek philosopher Diogenes (404 BC to 323 BC or thereabouts) carried a lamp during the day in search of an honest man.

Prepare to become a cockeyed optimist, courtesy of the story of Jasmina Allen and John Koonce.

Allen, an agricultural scientist with BASF located with a division in Research Triangle Park, around Davis Drive and I-40, was taking a stroll near a pond close to her office some months ago, and she just happened to look down and there was something shiny in the dirt. She picked it up, cleaned it off a bit and saw that it was a class ring.

She took it back to her office and showed it to some co-workers, and there began quite the story. She had just moved to the area from Alaska, and could see enough on the ring to know that it was from Duke University. Her office mates helped with more detailed identification, including the fraternity letters on the top of the ring. There was an inscription inside that was not clearly readable at first.

She talked with the alumni association at Duke, but didn’t really want to send the ring off.

“My office mates and I talked about it,” she said, “and we thought, well, we are scientists and we like solving a mystery.”

And as is the way with mysteries, the story unfolded a clue at a time.

Finally, she called the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity home office, and sent pictures. They found some information about the owner, and sent it along, suggesting he’d be glad to hear from her.

And this is where John Koonce comes in. It was his ring.

We should note at this point that Koonce and his ring parted company by accident sometime in 1964.

As best he can figure, he and his fraternity brothers, one night that year, rented some space in an old VFW lodge that was in what is now Research Triangle Park. It was where they used to have parties.

“That,” he said, “is when I must have lost the ring. I’d only had it a month.”

It was one of those bulky class rings, the kind that guys save to buy and after seeing that it’s about the size of a Volkswagen, put up in some drawer for eternity. But Koonce wasn’t through enjoying it yet, at that point.

The memory had become considerably faded over the 48 or 49 years since the ring disappeared, and Koonce had gone into a long career in finance which took him thousands of miles until retirement brought him back to the area (he was a Raleigh native) and to Morrisville, near RTP.

One day the phone rang and it was Jasmina Allen.

“I was sitting where I am now,” Koonce says from his home. “I got this call three or four weeks ago and a female voice on the line started this inquiry. She said, ‘Is this John Koonce?’ She said, ‘Did you go to Duke?’ She said, ‘Were you in this class?’ I was starting to wonder if it was a scam or something. Then she says, ‘Were you in the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘I have your ring.’”

This happened on a Friday. Koonce went to Allen’s office the following Monday. “I was waiting,” he said, “and I asked the receptionist if there used to be a VFW hall around there and she said yes.” So it’s possible that Koonce’s theory on where he lost the ring is indeed true. (Actually, Allen later found out it was an American Legion hall.)

He got his ring. The next day, he brought Allen some flowers and some good wine. She told him later she appreciated the flowers but had given the wine to a friend.

“I thought it was just very diligent,” he said. “She had really done some sleuthing.”

College rings of some size often find their way to gold buyers these days, sometimes bringing several hundred dollars.

“I never thought about that,” Allen said. “One, I knew it was something that was special to someone. So I felt a moral obligation to get it back where it belonged. And two, it was sort of an office project. It took several months.”

Mystery solved. Honest person found. Lamp, out.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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